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I started this column because I felt that science fiction might be a useful guide to the increasingly unimaginable present, so it feels strange to point to actual history as a way of understanding a current news story. Though it is also true, in an Inception-y twist, that relevant history is itself based on science fiction.
I speak of President Trump’s fixation on the creation of a so-called “Space Force.” We have literally seen this movie before. Trump is, essentially, doing his own dark and gritty reboot of "Star Wars," only 1) he doesn’t know he’s doing it and 2) the current policy doesn’t refer to George Lucas’ intellectual property but rather the work of two right-leaning science fiction writers whose ideas launched one of the most expensive boondoggles in modern military history. Their project was called "Star Wars," too, you see — though Lucas did unsuccessfully sue in an attempt to disassociate their fanciful lasers-in-space project from his much more lucrative and perhaps more realistic film serial.
Our story begins in late 1980, when conservatives woke to the possibility that an aging celebrity most famous for hawking ultimately destructive merchandise to aspirational rubes (cigarettes, mostly) might be their ticket to enacting hitherto outlandish policies. Science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle convened a meeting at Niven’s house of like-minded military and aerospace aficionados (including fellow author Robert Heinlein) to discuss ways they might influence President-Elect Reagan’s positions on space exploration. As one attendee put it, “Amid the buffet meals, saunas and hot tubs, well-stocked open bar, and myriad word processors, fancies simmered and ideas cooked, some emerging better than half-baked.”
Pournelle had already done some military and national security consulting as well, and his recommendations indicated a definite willingness to slip the surly bonds of existing tech and think as big as only a science fiction enthusiast can. For instance, he proposed that the Air Force haul into the atmosphere gigantic tungsten tubes (about the size of a telephone pole) that could then be dropped onto targets as WMDs. He called these DIY asteroids “Rods from God,” and named the program “Project Thor.” (The Air Force has actually revisited this idea since Pournelle proposed it in 1949.)
A significant portion of the 1981 policy paper they produced suggested approaching space the same way Western colonizers have for centuries: an opportunity for plunder. The group envisioned turning over exploration and development to private companies, and the gathering of raw resources to help build military might down on the ground. They had one proposal for a new kind of defensive technology: launching rockets from the ground that would, from space, “fire lethal bolts of energy at dozens to hundreds of enemy missiles and warheads simultaneously.”
Housing these weapons in “hardened silos” here on Earth was, they wrote, their key innovation, as the “space laser battle stations” “presently being considered for deployment” could never be properly defended — they were “veritable sitting ducks.” On the other hand, a country that had the ground-launched lethal-bolts defense could deflect an attack and then fire its own missiles to destroy any lingering threats. Perhaps not considering the lives of those around said lingering threats, the authors asserted that such a scenario would “conclude with the total and quite bloodless triumph by the nation owning the space laser system.”
This seems quite obviously fantasy, but it took just two years (the mere blink of an eye measured by government standards) for Niven and Pournelle’s idea to go from Niven’s California ranch to the White House to the television sets of every American watching Reagan proclaim the development of a “Strategic Defense Initiative” [SDI] that would — using the logic of that “bloodless triumph” — “eliminat[e] the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.”
As Reagan sketched it out in 1983, the technology still sounded pretty far-fetched. “What if,” he mused, “we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” The haziness of the idea was only exaggerated by Reagan’s melodramatic framing, in which he invited citizens to “let me share with you a vision of the future” and pleaded for scientists to “to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace.” Sen. Ted Kennedy immediately dubbed the idea a “reckless 'Star Wars' scheme” and thus George Lucas’ branding nightmare began, the government spending spigot was turned on, and the notion of missile defense itself continued to stay one step ahead of reality.
By the time President Bill Clinton shut down SDI in 1993, the nation had spent almost $40 billion trying to implement the technology that Niven and Pourelle had dreamed up over fondue pots and between hot tub soaks. It never produced a single successful prototype, either — instead, the project replicated its origins in science fiction with a series of falsified results that the Pentagon used to milk more funding from Congress and maintain the illusion that the United States had an edge over the Soviet Union in the dwindling Cold War. Related but smaller experimentation with missile interceptions — now run by the pared-down “Missile Defense Agency”—have spent further billions, though a 2010 report found there is still no evidence that “any of the fundamental unsolved problems associated with high-altitude ballistic missile defenses have been solved.” Oh, and the Pentagon was still fudging the tests. Rather than run true-to-life dry runs, the report alleged that the military conducts “carefully orchestrated scenarios that have been designed to hide fundamental flaws.”
Bald lies to paper over for embarrassing failures? The fabrication of a puffed-up national image? A president with only the most tenuous grasp of the science underlying his directive? The parallels between "Star Wars" and Trump’s “Space Force” dream are quite clear. A significant difference lies in the ways the newer idea has been received.
Trump has been mocked over “Space Force,” of course, just as Reagan was mocked regarding SDI (see a large selection of editorial cartoons here). And, as wild as it seems, the press and political opponents weren’t calling it “Star Wars” as a compliment. But the missile defense system idea was taken seriously enough to generate serious opposition. Science fiction writers didn’t just come up with the proposal, other science fiction writers protested it. Isaac Asimov quit the space lobbying organization he belonged to with Niven and Pourelle to register his dissent. Arthur C. Clarke testified about SDI before Congress against the idea, and a fight over the issue eventually ended his long friendship with Heinlein. And politicians such as Kennedy and activists banged the drum against the program each year of its existence.
Perhaps “Space Force” has not gelled enough even as fiction to be protested against. Perhaps it is still just a title with no plot, no actors attached. But we shouldn’t let our amusement distract us from the possibility of danger. That’s how we got Trump to begin with.